It’s always a great privilege to play a Shakespearean character, but especially to play one of Shakespeare’s villains. Playing Don John in this production is a great deal of fun, especially creating a character from the ground up. What follows is a short account of my process of creating this character, which, as I always do no matter what character I’m creating, begins with the text.
Don John only really talks about himself in one scene, Act I, Scene iii. This is the only scene in which Don John hints at the reason why he is so unhappy:
“I cannot hide what I am:
I must be sad when I have cause and smile
at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait
for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and
tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and
claw no man in his humour.”
— Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, Scene iii
Looking at the speech, the first thing I noticed is that it is all in prose, which is usually an indicator that the character is not speaking from his heart. Instead of making a confession of his true emotions, Don John tends to dominate the conversation and hit his listener over the head with his argument. Benedick and Beatrice also speak in prose when they are making fun of each other, but this kind of prose is much more terse and cynical.
Looking closer at the language of the speech, I also noticed the repeated usage of the word ‘no.’ In this speech Don John refuses to accommodate anybody, he reserves the right to ignore anyone, take from anyone, and irritate anyone he wishes without a thought for anyone’s feelings. Essentially, in this speech, he is refusing any kind of social grace or social interaction. Two kinds of people exhibit this kind of pattern; petulant children, and sociopaths.
Since Don John is an illegitimate child, he has probably been denied a normal, loving childhood, which can stunt his emotional growth. Like Edmund in King Lear, I decided that Don John doesn’t believe in any kind of love, except love for himself. Without the love of others, he refuses to give or show any himself, and only seeks to enhance his own ego, which explains Don John’s pointless war against his brother to improve his political status. This lust for power became my overall objective for the character which manifests itself in Don John’s utter contempt for everyone but himself, and the cruelty he shows to Claudio and the other people in the play.
However, I also made a decision that, unlike Keanu Reeves’ portrayal of Don John in the film version of Much Ado, I didn’t want him to just be a repellant psychopath that would be unpleasant to watch. I decided early on that I wanted to find a way to insert some comedy into the role. This is why I decided that when Don John complains about his melancholy and his unfulfilled desires, he pouts like a young child. I then summarized my concept for the role in four distinguishing characteristics:
Having established my character’s motivation and his overall personality traits, I concentrated on developing a voice and physicality. I thought to myself, “What person or character has these characters?” Then I saw this:
Neil Patrick’s character Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, matched these characteristics perfectly. He is a self-obsessed low level sociopath who sleeps with lots of women without loving any of them. He is also an illegitimate child who never knew his father, just like Don John. I therefore decided to borrow some mannerisms from Barney.
After watching a few episodes of the show, I noticed a few interesting details in the way Barney acts that I wished to replicate:
Posture- Barney’s posture is absolutely straight. He gives the impression of growing straight up out of the ground, which gives the impression of supreme confidence and arrogance. To keep my posture straight, I did yoga every day to keep my back and legs strong. I used a straight posture whenever Don John is in public but when he is alone and pouting, I let my shoulders hunch like Richard Nixon to give the impression that Don John, (like most bullies), suffers from extremely poor self-esteem, and his displays of ego are merely a front.
- Eyebrows: As you can see in the photo above, Neil Patrick Harris can move his eyebrows independently, which allows him to appear incredulous or mischievous with a sly move of the eyebrow. It just so happens that I can move my eyebrows independently as well, so I use this in moment
- The Chin: A lot of NPH’s acting comes from his chin. When he’s feeling very proud of himself, he thrusts his chin in the air like a lightning rod, absorbing mystical energy from the heavens. When he is feeling wicked, he chocks his head to the side and pops his chin out. I adopted these motions for moments in which Don John is plotting something.
Since Don John is upper class, he doesn’t need big gestures; the more upper class someone is the less they need to work to get people’s attention. However being the selfish brat that he is, his gestures are very flashy. I adopted subtle, fluid gestures that come from the wrist and only used full body gestures when the character is angry, or when he is playing up his own ego. In the video on the left, there’s a short rehearsal of a scene I did with Amanda Cash Snediker. At one point, when I want Tiarra Hairston to light Amanda’s cigarette, all I do is snap my fingers.
The iconic voice of a 1920s announcer is a reedy-voiced tenor with a slight slur in his words with a slight smile to his mouth. This kind of world-weary, loud-mouthed voice is exactly what I wanted to convey in Don John’s voice.
Costume “Let’s Suit up”
Just like Barney, I believe Don John is obsessed with his appearance. I looked up male fashions in the 1920s. Looking at this picture of Edward Beale McLean, (head of the Washington Post from 1916-1933), I saw a suit worth replicating. I found a great black pinstripe suit.
I also looked for a uniform that I thought would seem menacing and appropriately gawdy.
For More Info On Male Fashion from the 1920s, click on this link: